In Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, Alice asks herself, “what is the use of a book without pictures”. The suggestion is that there should be lots. Christopher Wheeldon, in his adaptation of Carrol’s classic, comes to the same conclusion with his visually stunning and stuffed-to-the-gills creation for The National Ballet of Canada. This “Alice” (2011), which is a shared production with England’s Royal Ballet, is lovingly crafted and set with all manner of theatrical extravagances. It is a tour de force for new, full length story ballets.
Wheeldon’s new “Alice” treads some familiar ground with another of the Royal’s adaptations, Fredrick Ashton’s, Tales of Beatrix Potter. Ashton’s vision for Tales of Beatrix Potter (originally a 1971 film) is based on a loosely episodic telling with no through storyline. For Alice, Wheeldon tackles the complexities of a detailed narrative head on and spares himself few challenges in doing so. The narrative of the courtroom scene of Act III is a case in point. It makes terrific theater and dance of the Queen’s trial of the Knave and the stolen tarts. Somehow in the middle of it all, there is a grand diversion of dancing cards and a stage so full of activity you feel that it might simply explode. And it does just that. The sky high house of cards and courtroom sets collapse, the unruly cast of characters tumble and are swept from the stage, while Alice is launched up through the rabbit hole via a swirling sequence of animation. The one drawback was that the stage action and the dancing could look like unintentional competitors.
This “Alice” could remind you of the massive pageants that Radio City Music Hall featured during its heyday. They depended on huge casts, extravagant costuming and a willing submission to spectacular theatrics and staging. Wheeldon revisits that sensibility and even reprises the famous Radio City Christmas tableau of the toy soldiers tumbling to the floor like dominoes. He also makes glancing references to Balanchine’s Apollo, Sleeping Beauty and the Nutcracker. A look-alike Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty, danced here by the Queen and a crew of four courtiers, brutally dismantles the original with broad humor, but a recast Waltz of the Flowers (Act II), in which is embedded a tender pas de deux for Alice and her love interest Jack, a.k.a. The Knave of Hearts, comes across with well saturated Victorian appeal thanks to Natasha Katz’s glowing lighting designs.
Powering the whole affair is Joby Talbot’s fine original score which at times sounded like film music, but then veered off into strains of English, romantic sensibilities. Think Elgar’s Wand of Youth Suites. The sets and designs by Bob Crowley make for a fantastically dressed visual experience that, even in Act III, continues to astonish us with its invention. The expansive projections and animations by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington were delightfully integrated into the unfolding narrative.
Both Wheeldon, and Nicholas Wright, who wrote the libretto for the ballet, have preserved the basic outlines of the book. It opens differently with a garden party at the Christ Church Deanery. The big change is the development of Alice’s love interest, Jack, who along with others at the party, are transformed into new characters after Alice disappears into the jelly mould that replaces the rabbit hole. The pair, danced by Principal Dancers, Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté, inhabit roles that are mostly charged with acting, and dance on the side, excepting two lengthy, romantic pas de deux in Acts II and III. Alice wakes up at the end of Act III on a park bench outside the Deanery. She is seated next to Jack. It turns out they are everyday lovers and both the garden party and Wonderland were Alice’s dream. Jack is in his street clothes but Alice is still suited up in her ballet gear and toe shoes. That came across as an anomaly which didn’t finally didn’t fit neatly with the well-designed narrative.
Facing off against Alice and Jack are Greta Hodgkinson (double cast as the Mother and the Queen of Hearts) and Aleksandar Antonijevic (double cast as Lewis Carroll and The White Rabbit). Also appealing was a tap dancing Mad Hatter from the tea party (presented as a kind of Music Hall personality) played by Robert Stephen, and Kevin D. Bowles as the grizzly Duchess. Bowles acknowledged the traditional flare at The Royal Ballet for drag roles with his meaty performance. I particularly liked the opening of Act III (the rose bush painters) with its clean and airy dancing by a trio of men. The roles were danced by Naoya Ebe, Giorgio Galli, and Skylar Campbell. They brought to mind Ashton’s buoyant choreography for his Tales of Beatrix Potter.
I was thankful that Wheeldon went for a straight retelling of “Alice”. While last season’s Snow White with Ballet Preljocaj careered along on the dark psychological edges of that story, Wheeldon has mostly banished from his production the undercurrents of Carroll’s peculiar and sometimes troubling personality. There is already enough going on just marching us through the tale. What you see here is what you get; just the story, but plenty of it.
(Music was supplied by an orchestra of Los Angeles freelance musicians. They were conducted by The National Ballet of Canada resident Music Director and Conductor, David Briskin. The company’s Artistic Director is Karen Kain. The reviewed performance took place on October 19, 2012 on the Dance at the Music Center series in Los Angeles.)